LOS ANGELES - Liam Neeson returns to the darker side in his latest film, playing a former copy haunted by his past as he becomes caught up in a murky drug underworld.
"A Walk Among the Tombstones," by director Scott Frank, is based on the eponymous novel by Lawrence Block from 1992, a police story full of black humour and violence.
The 62-year-old from Northern Ireland, who has chosen action hero roles notably since 2008's "Taken," is New York cop-turned-private detective Matthew Scudder, alcoholic and traumatized by a past case gone wrong.
Drug trafficker Kenny Kristo, played by Dan Stevens from hit British TV series "Downton Abbey," asks him to probe the mysterious disappearance and then brutal murder of his wife.
As he delves deeper into the case, Scudder uncovers other, more horrific crimes.
Neeson, nominated for an Oscar for 1993's "Schindler's List," said he felt at home with "a character that is not in a good relation with the world, tortured, alcoholic.
"These guys wake up in the morning and have to think of a reason to get up. All these little heroic battles they have every day, they fight against them every day," he said ahead of the film's US release on Friday.
He has already played similar roles, including 2001's "The Grey," as well as the first two "Taken" movies (the third is in post-production and due out next year) and this year's "Non-Stop."
Along the way he meets an African American orphan, played by Brian Bradley, who manages to coax him out of his solitude, and persuades him to shoulder his responsibilities.
The film is inspired by 1970s thrillers with stars like Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, with characters who "all live in this grey area," said director Frank.
It took 15 years to bring the film to the screen, from the moment Frank discovered Block's novel.
"When I was about to start to write it, 'Minority Report' happened, and Steven Spielberg asked me to help, and my life became that for a couple of years," he told a press conference in Beverly Hills.
Once he had finished adapting the screenplay and began looking for actors, he couldn't find a studio to finance it.
"Adult drama thrillers weren't getting made. people weren't going to see these movies," he explained.
The tide turned in the mid 2000s. "And then movies in the US$20-30 millions (S$25.4-S$38 millions) (budget) range became viable, and you could do dramas that cost that," he said.
"But more importantly is that Liam Neeson," who "wanted to do this movie, and in the course of this 10 years, Liam had become a huge international star" with a series of action movies, he added.